Edinburgh, the ‘Athens of the North’

Edinburgh, the ‘Athens of the North’

  • Print of the orginal plan for Edinburgh's New Town

In the early 18th century Edinburgh’s Old Town was notorious.

Its dark narrow wynds and closes echoed to shouts of ‘Garde Loo!’ Each night Edinburgh townsfolk emptied their chamber pots out of windows into the street. The stench was known ironically as ‘the Flowers of Edinburgh’.

The population of the city continued to rise and the Old Town was simply too small and overcrowded to cope. Something had to be done. In January 1766 a competition was held to design a grand New Town.

The New Town

After much deliberation the competition was won by a young architect named James Craig. Craig’s original design was based on the Union Flag – a patriotic gesture to King George III in the years after the Jacobite Risings.

The streets of the New Town were carefully named:

  • George Street, the largest and most prestigious street, was named after the king, George III.
  • Queen Street was named in honour of King George III’s wife.
  • Princes Street, originally planned as ‘St Giles Street’, was renamed for King George III’s sons.
  • St Andrew’s Square and St George’s Square, named after the patron saints of Scotland and England, signified the Union. St George’s Square became Charlotte Square, named after the Queen.
  • Thistle Street and Rose Street were named after the emblems of Scotland and England.
  • Hanover Street was named for the royal family name. Frederick Street was named in honour of King George III’s father.

The buildings of the New Town reflected the Georgian love of classical antiquity. Architects looked to the masterpieces of ancient Greece and Rome for inspiration.Robert Adam toured Europe to see the grand buildings of antiquity first hand. Adam’s designs for the central dome of Register House and his buildings in Charlotte Square are world-renowned.

The classical Doric, Ionic and Corinthian pillars of Edinburgh earned the city the title ‘the Athens of the North’.

Living in the New Town

Enlightenment Edinburgh was a dynamic place – a growing city that was looking forward to a prosperous future. It was the new middle classes that were at the forefront of the Enlightenment.

David Hume moved to a home in the New Town, Alison Rutherford held court in her Edinburgh apartment and James Hutton looked out of his window at the geological marvel of Salisbury Crags.

In 1750 an English visitor, Mr Amyat, the King’s Chemist, famously remarked to William Creech, Robert Burns’s publisher,

‘Here I stand at what is called the Cross of Edinburgh, and can, in a few minutes, take 50 men of genius and learning by the hand.’